Sunday, August 19, 2012

London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets

For several years during the nineties, I spent a minimum of two hours every workday using London’s Metro to make my way from Richmond to Uxbridge. Although there was almost no underground travel on that route, I did use the underground portions of the system on weekends to explore the city – and always found it hard to believe that the earliest portion of the Underground (the Metropolitan Line) opened in 1863, just as America’s Civil War reached its mid-point.  All those travel-hours left me passively curious about the history of the Underground and the visionaries who dared build it. 

Recently, that curiosity was reawakened by Peter Ackroyd’s London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets.  Although the book is not entirely devoted to the underground train system, the two or three chapters dedicated to the Underground will serve as a good primer for anyone interested in its history.  Ackroyd also offers a three-page bibliography that will be helpful to those readers wanting a more detailed understanding of the underground rail system.

There is a hidden world, one with a long history, beneath the streets of London.  Amongst all the cables carrying gas, water, telephone, and electricity are natural springs and rivers that still flow as they always have.  Catacombs beneath cemeteries and church graveyards house the ancient, and not so ancient, remains of London citizens.  The remnants of Roman amphitheaters and gang hideouts are as out of sight down there as the massive sewer system that carries the waste products of London’s millions.  Most fascinating to me, the London Underground still includes a number of “dead stations” that have been closed down over the decades – many of which still display the same posters and signs that were current on the day the stations were first bypassed. 

The tunnels beneath London are home to a small animal kingdom, as well.  Most prominent, as regular Tube passengers can attest, are countless Russian brown rats and mice, but there are also large populations of frogs, eels, mosquitoes, and cockroaches in the wetter portions of this vast underworld.  I also remember seeing a stray dog or two and numerous pigeons that appeared to be hopping rides from one station to the next in search of their next meals.  

Peter Ackroyd
Because of the catastrophic damage that would result if the tunnels were sabotaged, the London underworld is a “forbidden zone” to which entrance is limited strictly to those with legitimate need of access.  As a result, it is almost impossible for any one individual to study the whole of what lies beneath London’s streets.  Ackroyd does, however, manage to explain in concise terms the magnitude of what is buried here beneath one of the world’s greatest cities. 

The book includes chapters on the London Underground, rivers beneath the surface, the sewer system, animals and insects, pipes and cables, and how the underworld can affect the psyche of people.  There is much of interest in this little book of 228 pages (a page count that includes the bibliography and index) but Ackroyd’s style can make for tedious reading at times.  This is particularly the case in those chapters devoted to the underground waterways, chapters in which the author traces, almost block by block, the paths of the rivers and streams.  Patient readers, however, will come away with a solid, if basic, understanding of just how amazing the London underworld is – and will be left wishing that someone would further explore it to learn what more it can tell us about the city’s past.


  1. Ever since I vacationed in London and used the Tube to get around, I've been curious about its history. Sounds like this book might be worth a read!

    Great review!

  2. Megan, it would be perfect for you, I think. I'll warn you again that Ackroyd can be tedious sometimes - when he gives more detail than anyone would every want or need to know about river paths, etc. But the chapters are so varied on topic, that it is bound to have something of interest for you. It's one you should probably check out from a library rather than purchasing, though.

  3. I'm always interested in the topics Mr. Ackroyd writes about, but I'm seldom ever able to read his books. He's someone I really wish I liked.

    The most interesting books about the subways I've ever seen was one about the ghost stations of Berlin. During the cold war the city was split in two on top of a subway system that was not. So to get from parts of West Berlin to other parts of West Berlin you had to ride trains through East Berlin but could not stop at the stations you passed.

    The result was a series of station platforms that were closed to passengers called ghost stations.

  4. Glad to hear, James, that I'm not the only one who finds it difficult to get through Peter Ackroyd's books. It's not the denseness of the prose, or anything like that, that gets me. It's his habit of focusing to the extreme on aspects of a subject that don't interest me much while ignoring the very ones I picked the book up for in the first place. Sometimes he seems a bit tone deaf about a subject's real potential and goes off on tangents that lead nowhere.

    That book on the Berlin system sounds interesting. Thanks for mentioning that one.

  5. I was given Ackroyd's book "London: A Biography" many years ago, and it so wonderful looking of a thing.... weighs about 20 pounds..... which in Canadian terms would be about 30 dollars!
    Thank you for reminding me that I should read the thing!

  6. Although "London" has been on my radar screen for quite a while, I haven't found the energy to tackle it yet, Cip. Ackroyd's books always seem to turn into a chore for me before I finish them. Maybe one day I'll get around to it.

  7. Sounds like a very interesting read. There's a whole other world down there and I am fascinated by it.

  8. It's an interesting book, Kathleen, but Ackroyd's style is somewhat of a pain to get through. I just find him to be a slow read and really struggle with his style a lot...can't explain it because he's not hard to understand, more hard to not fall asleep reading than anything else.

  9. It's an interesting book, Kathleen, but Ackroyd's style is somewhat of a pain to get through. I just find him to be a slow read and really struggle with his style a lot...can't explain it because he's not hard to understand, more hard to not fall asleep reading than anything else.